Postcard from America
In the history of IndyCar racing, 1993 marked something of a watershed. Thanks in large part to the presence of Nigel Mansell, the PPG IndyCar World Series attracted unprecedented international coverage and, in all but a couple of cases, attendance at the events was up and the all-important television ratings showed similar growth.
But in addition to remembering 1993 as the year that Mansell-mania came to IndyCar racing, future historians may also mark last season as the year in which IndyCar racing’s old guard truly began to change. After all, it’s not every season that three men who’ve won 148 races, including nine Indianapolis 500s, call it quits. But that’s what happened when four-time Indy 500 winner Rick Mears retired in December of 1992, the winningest IndyCar driver of all time – AJ Foyt – hung up his driving shoes in May, and the second most successful IndyCar driver of all time – Mario Andretti – announced in October that 1994 will be his final season.
But in many ways the retirements of Mears, Mario and AJ were just the tip of the iceberg. Everywhere you looked in IndyCar racing, it seemed, young talent was coming to the fore.
Of course Paul Tracy and Robby Gordon got the most attention. And rightly so. For all his well-documented gaffes, Tracy was the only driver who carried the fight to Mansell race after race. If anything, Gordon’s raw talent is even more blinding than that of his Canadian counterpart. And while he also made his share of mistakes, there can be no doubting the latter half of the 1990s will see Robby vying with Tracy for many a PPG title.
But what of the others? Ironically perhaps, the success of Tracy and Gordon may help a slightly older generation whose talents were squandered in the early ’90s; drivers like Mike Groff, Jimmy Vasser and Scott Pruett. Groff, the 1989 Indy Lights (FIL) champion, did wonders for the small Euromotorsports team in 1990/91 but seemed headed for obscurity after a short stint with AJ Foyt failed to click. Following the lead of Roger Penske, not to mention former mentor Jim Trueman, Bobby Rahal plucked Groff from the ranks of the under-employed to serve as tester and occasional second driver for Rahal/Hogan. Saddled with the Rahal/Hogan chassis, Groff didn’t get much in the way of results in ’93 but he’s earned rave reviews for his testing work with the new Honda engine.
Speaking of the Rahal/Hogan, in its earlier guise as Truesports’ “Made in America” project the chassis all but ruined Pruett’s career. But Scott was nothing short of brilliant in ProFormance Racing’s ’91 Lola last year and has since been tabbed to spearhead the testing and development of Firestone’s new IndyCar tyres with the reborn Patrick Racing Team.
Vasser’s future is less clear after he came tantalisingly close to a deal with Galles Racing for ’94, only to have Rick Galles and Danny Sullivan agree to stick it out another season. Virtually everyone who’s worked with Jimmy – mechanics, engineers, team managers – simply drool about his ability, but despite the best efforts of team owner Jim Hayhoe he hasn’t had the IndyCar equipment to showcase his talents with any regularity.
1994 will be a crucial season for Groff, Pruett and Vasser if they are to feature in the coming years. Groff must show he can be a front runner, Pruett must convince Firestone and Patrick he can win and Vasser simply has to make the right choice as to what, when and for whom he drives.
Perhaps unfairly, Adrian Fernandez also faces a critical year in his second season with Galles Racing. Like Tracy and Groff, he was brought on as a junior driver to do testing legwork with a few starts thrown in for reward. Although he showed great form in the ’92 Indy Lights series, the amiable Mexican ended too many races against the wall during a year in which Galles Racing had more to worry about than its cub driver.
Next up is a group that showed promise in their first crack at IndyCars last year. While time is hardly on their side, it’s safe to say that 1994 isn’t quite a make or break season for the likes of Andrea Montermini, Scott Sharp and Mark Smith.
With his brilliant performances at Detroit and Vancouver, Montermini was as impressive as Tracy or Gordon. Perhaps to ward off prospective poachers, Euromotorsports’ Antonio Ferrari claimed last year he had Montermini under contract for ’94 – a claim Andrea disputes. Double TransAm champ Sharp looked quite at home in his IndyCar debut at Laguna Seca and has since signed to drive along with veteran Dominic Dobson in the well-funded PacWest Team. Fast but wild in the junior formulae, Smith showed impressive maturity in 1993 but was hampered by a budget that seemed to shrink as the year progressed. He seems likely to join Gordon and Willy T Ribbs at Walker Motorsports and should benefit from that squad’s professional approach
Just over the horizon are Jacques Villeneuve and Bryan Herta. The son of Gilles Villeneuve, Jacques already has a solid IndyCar programme together for ’94 with Forsythe-Green Racing, with which he won four races and earned rookie of the year honours in the ’93 Toyota Atlantic championship. Undeniably gifted. . . and young, the 22 year-old will face a steep learning curve next year. In contrast, Herta has demonstrated a maturity beyond his years since he burst onto the scene in 1991 with the Zerex/Saab title and a fine performance in Britain at the Formula Ford Festival. With the assistance of Tasman Racing he completely dominated last year’s Indy Lights series but as yet has nothing more (or less) than some tests scheduled with Newman/ Haas Racing. He does, however, have a Lola T94/00 with which to barter. Indy racing’s most prolific constructor having loaned him a chassis as part of his Indy Lights championship prize.
Franck Freon and Frederik Ekblom are also set to move up from FIL to IndyCars, but it remains to be seen whether they’ll have a fair chance to display their talents. Freon and team owner John Martin were simply overwhelmed by the Tasman juggernaut in this year’s FIL, and only time will tell if Martin has the requisite resources to give the talented Freon a fair shake. Ekblom has, at times, shown dazzling speed in outclassed equipment and, sadly. will probably face the same uphill battle in IndyCars with Sovereign Racing.
Former world champion ‘biker Eddie Lawson really sparkled in the waning races of the FIL season and certainly may develop into a hot property after another season on four wheels, as will Greg Moore, the Canadian teenager who jumped from FF2000 to FIL with surprisingly little drama last year. Briton Steve Robertson also impressed in FIL after a disappointing 1992 in European F3000 but, like Tasman team-mate Herta, has no clear-cut road to IndyCars ahead of him. Ditto Claude Bourbonnais, the moral victor of last year’s Toyota Atlantic series. Older, more experienced and every bit as fast as his celebrated team-mate Villeneuve, Bourbonnais was either first or second in every race he finished in 1993. And yet he had to concede the title to the unheralded David Empringham, who earned points in all but one race and scored one victory. Bourbonnais has had an IndyCar test with Forsythe-Green but his prospects for 1994 are uncertain, while Empringham seems destined to defend his Toyota Atlantic title at the behest of sponsor Motomaster.
In another era, the names of midget and sprint car standouts Mike Bliss, Andy Hillenberg and Stevie Smith might have topped the list of young lions itching to get into IndyCars. Sadly, like Kenny Schrader and Jeff Gordon before them, the best that USAC and the World of Outlaws have to offer look to the Daytona 500 rather than the Indy 500 as do an increasing number of other up and corners. Just ask Zerex/Saab standout Jerry Nadeau who finished an impressive fourth in the Kent class at the recent Formula Ford Festival . . .